(This was originally posted in Hindustan Times by Rezaul H Laskar and Sutirtho Patranobis)
China’s military has stepped up efforts to recruit more Tibetans amid the dragging border standoff with India on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), holding special recruitment drives across Tibet Autonomous Region since the beginning of the year, people familiar with developments said.
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officials have criss-crossed the Tibet Autonomous Region to hold recruitment drives and to pick up Tibetan recruits who were already at PLA camps, the people cited above said on condition of anonymity.
There are also reports the PLA intends to create a Special Tibetan Army Unit, the people said, citing intelligence reports and communications intercepts from three separate intelligence agencies. If this were to go ahead, this would be the first PLA formation comprising soldiers from a specific ethnicity, the people added.
PLA officials from Lhasa visited Rudok town in Ngari Prefecture in the far west of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in the third week of February to recruit Tibetans as soldiers, according to an intelligence report. These officials later travelled to Zanda or Tsamda County, one of the border counties of TAR to select Tibetan recruits from several PLA camps for possible induction into the special unit, the report said.
The PLA also reportedly carried out a recruitment drive in Lhasa to induct a sizeable number of Tibetans. This drive was conducted against the backdrop of the standoff in Ladakh and the PLA is expected to raise more border defence regiments comprising Tibetans, the people said.
Security officials in New Delhi have been keeping a close watch on these developments, which come at a time when the disengagement process along the LAC has stalled after a limited drawdown of troops, armoured formations and artillery on the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in February.
The latest meeting of senior Indian and Chinese military commanders held on April 9 ended without any forward movement on disengagement at other friction points such as Depsang, Hot Springs and Gogra, though the two sides agreed to maintain stability on the ground and avoid any new incidents.
“These new recruitment drives are being held at a time when there are reports that mainstream Chinese troops from lower altitudes faced problems during their deployment in Tibet. We have intercepts showing their troops suffered from health problems such as severe mountain sickness and high altitude pulmonary oedema,” said an official.
“It is also meant to send a message to India and to Tibetans in India,” the official added.
According to reports in the PLA Daily, China’s military has been introducing guidelines to prevent troops serving on the Tibetan plateau from getting altitude sickness. “Altitude sickness is a common problem that has been affecting troops stationed on the plateau for a long time,” an unnamed army officer was quoted as saying by PLA Daily.
Last August, India deployed the Special Frontier Force (SFF), a secret paramilitary force comprising ethnic Tibetans, for an operation to take over strategic heights on the south bank of Pangong Lake. A Tibetan soldier was killed in a landmine blast during the operation and senior Indian officials attended his funeral – the first acknowledgement of the SFF being used along the LAC and a move seen as a signal to China.
The people said the special recruitment drives are meant to induct Tibetans into the PLA and not the Tibetan militia units, which play a role in patrolling, logistics and transporting supplies using mules and horses. These militia units specialise in operating at high altitudes and their training too has been intensified since last year, according to reports in China’s state media.
The special recruitment drives for Tibetans also come in the wake of informal efforts by the Chinese side last year to forge a special relationship with the Nepali Army on the lines of its relationship with the Indian Army. The Nepal Army chief is an honorary chief of the Indian Army and the same honour is conferred by the other side and Nepalese Gurkha soldiers serve in the Indian Army.
“The Chinese side made an informal proposal in this regard, hoping it could open the doors for possible recruitment of Gurkha soldiers but it was rebuffed,” said a person familiar with developments.
A second person confirmed the matter and said the moves in Nepal and Tibet were aimed at opening new fronts against India.
According to China’s official statistics from 2010, there were 2.1 million Han servicemen, compared to 4,300 Tibetans. More recent figures aren’t readily available.
India-based Tibet specialist Claude Arpi said altitude sickness or lack of oxygen has been an issue with the PLA. Unlike Indian soldiers, most PLA soldiers aren’t trained enough to acclimatise to high altitude, and only local Tibetan scouts may be accustomed to such altitudes, he said.
“There have been repeated articles in Chinese state media on the oxygen issue,” Arpi said, adding that on the Indian side, troops drawn from Ladakh or ethnic Tibetans are more accustomed to high altitudes and genetically face fewer problems.
Given the secrecy with which PLA functions, there is little evidence in the open of China putting together a single ethnicity-based unit but the incidence of altitude sickness among border soldiers could be one reason why the PLA would want to recruit more Tibetans. From the propaganda aspect, recruitment of Tibetans would be interesting as TAR will celebrate its 70th anniversary of what Beijing calls the “peaceful liberation” this year, Arpi said.